"Music, the greatest good that mortals know, And all of heaven we have below."
The immortal Beethoven was born on this day in 1770, 237 long years ago. There is, however, some dispute as to the exact day. According to Wikipedia: Beethoven's date of birth—usually given as December 16—is not known with certainty, but is inferred from circumstantial evidence. Well into adulthood, Beethoven believed he had been born in 1772, and told friends the 1770 baptism was of his older brother Ludwig Maria, who died in infancy; but Ludwig Maria's baptism is recorded as taking place in 1769. Some biographers assert that his father falsified his date of birth in an attempt to pass him off as a child prodigy like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but this is disputed. Children of that era were usually baptized the day after birth, but there is no documentary evidence that this occurred in Beethoven's case. It is known that his family and his teacher Johann Albrechtsberger celebrated his birthday on 16 December. While the evidence supports the probability that 16 December 1770, was Beethoven's date of birth, this cannot be stated with certainty.
What is not in dispute is the magnitude of his genius and the ineffable beauty of his music. Here is Leonard Bernstein, in his The Joy of Music, on one aspect of that music:
Many, many composers have been able to write heavenly tunes and respectable fugues. Some composers can orchestrate the C-major scale so that it sounds like a masterpiece, or fool with notes so that a harmonic novelty is achieved. But this is all mere dust—nothing compared to the magic ingredient sought by them all: the inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be. Beethoven had this gift in a degree that leaves them all panting in the rear guard.
Beethoven broke all the rules, and turned out pieces of breath-taking rightness. Rightness—that's the word! When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you're listening to Beethoven. Melodies, fugues, rhythms—leave them to the Chaikovskys and Hindemiths and Ravels. Our boy has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down.
(My title is from Joseph Addison's Song for St. Cecilia's Day; the piano illustrated is Beethoven's; the top piece of music is part of his manuscript for his sonata for piano and cello, Op. 69; the bottom is part of his manuscript for the supremely beautiful Op. 111, Beethoven's last piano sonata.)